04/04/2016 11:46AM

Iron Rob emerges an unlikely star for Papaprodromou

Shigeki Kikkawa
Iron Rob heads to the Santa Anita Derby on Saturday off this win in the San Pedro Stakes.

ARCADIA, Calif. – George Papaprodromou had a modest record of nine wins from 166 starters in 2015, a letdown from a career-best 16 wins in 2014. The disappointment has been short-lived. Papaprodromou’s stable in on course for a record season in 2016, with Iron Rob’s victory in the San Pedro Stakes on March 20 the stable’s 10th win of the year.

Iron Rob is at the forefront of Papaprodromou’s stable again this week. On Saturday, Iron Rob starts in the $1 million Santa Anita Derby, the leading West Coast prep for the Triple Crown.

The 39-year-old Papaprodromou, a native of Cyprus, is quick to acknowledge that Iron Rob will be a longshot in a Santa Anita Derby field led by Danzing Candy and Mor Spirit, the first two finishers of the $400,345 San Felipe Stakes on March 12.

Iron Rob has won consecutive stakes at Santa Anita, leaving Papaprodromou and owner Justin Kretz eager to learn how much Iron Rob can accomplish this spring. The Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby at 1 1/8 miles will provide an answer.

“His last two races were good, and I think he’s improving,” Papaprodromou said at his Santa Anita stable. “It’s a matter of the distance. Hopefully, he’ll do it.”

Iron Rob, by Twirling Candy, has emerged as an unlikely leading horse for Papaprodromou this year. The colt needed seven starts to beat maidens, doing so in a maiden special weight race at 5 1/2 furlongs at Los Alamitos on Dec. 4.

After finishing seventh in an optional claimer at 6 1/2 furlongs at Santa Anita on Jan. 3, Iron Rob won the $77,380 Baffle Stakes at 6 1/2 furlongs on Feb. 21 and the $79,695 San Pedro Stakes at six furlongs on March. 20.

There was a scare after the Baffle Stakes when Iron Rob was pulled up by jockey Santiago Gonzalez and vanned back to Papaprodromou’s stable. No injury was detected, and Iron Rob quickly returned to training.

“We looked at him from head to toe, and it scared us,” he said. “The horse stumbled twice. He might have been a little tired. Santiago did the right thing to jump off right away.”

In the San Pedro Stakes, Iron Rob disputed the pace and won by 1 1/2 lengths over Denman’s Call, another outsider for the Santa Anita Derby. Stewart Elliott, who won the 2004 Kentucky Derby on Smarty Jones, rode Iron Rob in the San Pedro, replacing an injured Gonzalez.

“I think he ran better than he did in the Baffle,” Papaprodromou said. “He had something left at the end, from what Stewart said.”

The development of Iron Rob has been a boost for Papaprodromou, who had a career-best season in 2014 with stable earnings of $1,900,425. Imperative won the $1.5 million Charles Town Classic that year for Papaprodromou and Kenji Morinaga, who claimed the horse for $50,000 at Hollywood Park in December 2013.

Imperative was second in the 2015 Charles Town Classic but was transferred to trainer Richard Baltas last summer. Imperative was one of approximately 15 horses owned by Morinaga who left Papaprodromou’s stable at the time. Papaprodromou’s stable size was cut in half overnight.

“We tried to rebuild again,” Papaprodromou said.

Currently, Papaprodromou has 32 horses, with 2-year-olds expected soon to further swell the group.

Papaprodromou said there are several factors that have led to his success this year.

“I’ve put the horses in the right spots,” he said. “We had a few good claims.”

Whether Iron Rob progresses to the Triple Crown depends on the Santa Anita Derby. The colt is not nominated to the series, meaning he would have to be supplemented to the Kentucky Derby for $200,000.

Kretz is game for the big-ticket investment if Iron Rob is first or second on Saturday.

“He would like a shot to go to Kentucky,” Papaprodromou said.

That may have seemed impossible a few months ago.